As someone who spends at least 1,500 hours a year alone in my house playing video games, I can tell you it has always meant pressing a lot of buttons.
In video games there has traditionally been a button for everything. Press a button to jump. Press a button to punch. Press a button to shoot. Press a button to throw. Press a button to catch. Press a button to run. Even press a button to speak. Along with moving a mouse a few inches or twiddling some thumb sticks, this is what it has meant to play a video game.
Now I have nothing against buttons; they’ve been good to me. But as an entertainment interface, they can be profoundly abstract. Unlike the act of changing a channel or activating a stove, playing a video game is supposed to be fun. And yet the physical mechanics of play — pressing buttons — have usually had nothing to do with the actions being evoked.
Now that is finally changing. Music games like Power Gig and Rock Band 3 are beginning to incorporate real musical instruments. Microsoft’s new Kinect system sees you and listens to you in your living room, letting you jump, swing, kick, or just sit on your couch and speak aloud to control what happens on your television. Meanwhile Internet games like Eve Online and World of Warcraft are defined not by the adventures created by their developers but by the global social communities and political systems created autonomously by the players within them. Throughout, from the personal to the physical, the line between the real and the virtual is beginning to fade.
From the beginning of video games’ mass popularity in the 1970s with the likes of Asteroids and Pong, until quite recently, the technology behind them has been so primitive that there has never been even the conceit that a video game could approximate or represent a genuine, nonelectronic human activity.
But as the barrier of buttons give way, rather than sucking us into an electronic world, as in the movie “Tron,” it turns out that the electronics are coming to us; the machines are learning to understand and facilitate real human action and behavior. The result is that video games are poised to become more engaging — physically, emotionally and perhaps even intellectually — than they have ever been. But they will do so not by dehumanizing players but rather by bridging the gap between media and actual personal experience.
And that, I’ve come to realize, is what art is supposed to be all about.
About a year ago I found myself trying to figure out how video games relate to traditional, non-interactive forms of artistic expression. I was struggling to articulate a sense that playing a game could be similar to consuming a painting, the symphony or the ballet.
And then a friend gave me a copy of “Art as Experience,” John Dewey’s seminal 1934 work on the philosophy of art, and it became clear: art exists not as artifact but as we engage with it. As Dewey puts it: “The product of art — temple, painting, statue, poem — is not the work of art. The work takes place when a human being cooperates with the product so that the outcome is an experience that is enjoyed because of its liberating and ordered properties.”
With no media do humans cooperate so intimately as video games. This is precisely why games have been the most popular new mass entertainment of recent decades. And this is also why the emergence of more physically natural and socially meaningful ways of enjoying games is so rich with creative possibility.